(book available on Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Oakys-Grand-Tour )
‘They had got to be joking!’ My heart sank as I surveyed the grotesque contraption they had called me out to see. Two large wheels supported a tattered chassis, coloured in a gaudy combination of yellow, red and purple.
‘Oaky’ she crooned ‘Look what I’ve got you’. ‘Come on, it’s a trailer – for you!’
I turned in disgust and stalked away. I am an intelligent dog, a perfect crossbreed; mixing the comprehension and perspicacity of the collie with the rugged good looks, athleticism and independent spirit of the lurcher. There is at least an eighth of Irish wolfhound in me; that most noble, calm and sagacious of breeds.
I picked up Icy Bear, the current favourite of my soft toy collection, and retired under a shrub.
From my vantage point with my most excellent hearing I deduced that it was all her fault.
After years of inaction due to disability, when she was forced to abandon her hiking of the South West Coast path, and had to exercise her uncouth pack of dogs in an electric disabled buggy, she now had a new lease of life. Unfortunately for me, this coincided with my prime years of health and activity. During my puppyhood she had gradually got more mobile; thanks to new medications and the over-zealous admonishments of her resolute and tenacious husband. Despite years of pushing her around in a wheelchair (which he admitted had added to his muscular physique) he had nevertheless kept her old walking boots in the shed, periodically slathering them in Neatsfoot Oil, sure that, one day, she would be able to use them again. Well, she had, but still found that she could not walk far, nor could she carry any pack. Hence, they had started cycling. What seemed an ideal activity for human and hound, bounding along cycle paths, stopping at hostelries, picnicking on Bonios – was about to turn nasty.
The 21st century has spawned some damaging technologies. Foremost among this – and I have the full agreement of my master in this – is eBay. It has resulted in his penniless state due to the cavalier attitude of his book-obsessed wife. It is also the place where she purchased the aforementioned garish contraption, known henceforth as ‘the trailer’.
Whilst under the shrub, chewing idly, but gently, upon my polar bear toy, Icy Bear, I heard her boasting that she had paid but twenty-five pounds for the trailer – from eBay. She had now forced my master to assemble the beast, which apparently was meant to tow along two small children behind a bicycle. Owing to the physical disparity between a pair of toddlers and my good self, they were busy modifying the vulgar edifice.
Despite my good master’s comments that she was, and I quote, ‘As mad as a bag of cats,’ that indeed ‘The entire idea is stupid and unworkable,’ and that, she was just trying to make him suffer more than normal by weighing him down with a cumbersome dog, whilst making him a laughing stock amongst the cycling fraternity. They still managed to cobble together a reasonably flat area on which they intended me to travel, attached a harness which they thought would save me from being catapulted into traffic and ensured there would be plenty of room for their tent and sundry kit in the back. With a flourish they nailed a non-slip doormat bearing the legend ‘Welcome’ onto the flat area. Then expectant eyes were swivelled in my direction and I was summoned.
Due to my collie genetic code I am unable to refuse a direct order or plea, although I can immediately reverse or change said action by calling upon my lurcher genes. So they had a rather tricky time inserting me into the harness. When bidden to jump up onto the dreaded trailer, I leapt wildly and inaccurately and kept landing on the far side of it. Contrary could be my middle name. But they are a stubborn couple, so eventually I was shanghaied onto it and paraded up and down our country lane behind his bicycle. Mercifully I did not see any neighbourhood dogs and they did not see me.
The following day they were at it again. The trailer was latched onto his bike and all three of us set off down the lane. I had seen the picnic stuffed into her pannier, so I was content to go along with the madness and took up my preferred position at the head of our little cavalcade. I like to run ahead, being the guardian of the pack. I also need to ensure they run as a tight herd, (I don’t do stragglers) so I spend much of my time craning my head backwards and I bark continuously with the excitement of it all. Until one of them ‘Tsks’ me and makes me run behind the lead bike, when I quiet down and save energy for any mishap that might befall us. We carried on in this way for several miles, until they decided to make me get in the trailer again.
As soon as my paws landed I could tell something was wrong. So I leapt out. They commanded me to get in again. So I did. Then I leapt out. The stupidity and ineptitude of humans never ceases to amaze me. They tethered me into the blighted thing and rode off. Of course the trailer parted company with the bicycle – as I had intimated by my behaviour – and I had to make a super-dog leap to safety, tearing the harness away in the process. I proceeded to a safe spot at the side of the road, lay down and fixed them with my most hang-dog expression. When will they ever learn?
Obviously to make it up to me they had to break out the picnic and spoil me rotten. I do like a ham and mustard roll!
After several more day trips in this vein, they began to be marginally better at setting up the contraption and I deigned to ride in it when they hollered at me.
They had packed far more picnic than usual – in fact they had piled most of their possessions onto the blighted trailer. We were to have what they call a ‘holiday’. From Tiverton we set off along a delightful canal. A while later we set up camp on the edge of a field of maize. I could see what all the gear was for now.
They kindly let me choose whether I wanted to clamber aboard the trailer next day, which I declined. I kept declining for about ten miles, then realised that – awful though it was – riding the trailer did save my paws. Once aboard I leant heavily upon the rear of it and swivelled my head around so that I could watch my mistress moaning and groaning as she cycled along.
At the National Trust property of Knightshayes they abandoned me and the bikes and went off to stuff themselves with coffee and cake. This seemed to gee them up and before we knew it we were sitting by the river in Bampton sharing sandwiches. Mid-afternoon saw us beside another river (or maybe it’s the same one?) at Dulverton, here they stopped at the behest of my mistress for a large G&T. She warbled on about it being her 17th wedding anniversary and that if she wasn’t getting a medal she’d have a large one instead.
Ahead of us was a hill. Not a normal, run of the mill hill, but a special, made in Devon, super-hill. Most places that have acclivitous terrain wend their roads to and fro in order to make it easier to surmount the gradients. But not here. In Devon it is deemed wimpish and cowardly to do ought else but march the road straight up and over. This is why the Devon bank was invented, so that one would have something to cling onto as you made your way aloft. Having had a rest in the trailer, I was quite happy wandering up, sniffing at all the delightful pongs that whiffed upon the breeze. But the mistress was vocal in her depreciation of her native geography. Eventually we attained the summit and found ourselves on gorse-clad moorland. To our right was an unremitting plateau of hummocky brown grasses, relieved only by dents and ditches of murky, insect-infested water, to our left, the coconut-scented gorse slipped into a patchwork of verdant coombes, folding fields and woodland into the misty distance.
She continued to complain of aching muscles, at the lack of anywhere flat or dry to camp and at the utter unlikeliness that she would be treated to the promised anniversary dinner. Still we plodded on. As a thick mist descended, the usual attire for the heights of Exmoor, she lost even the ability to whine, but misery dripped out of every pore.
At a junction a dim light was spied to the right, as we neared it a sign became clear ‘The Sportsman’s Inn’. It was a miracle! My master redeemed his anniversary pledge and bought his darling wife a meal, I was fed by all and sundry before I clapped out under a table and the thoughtful Landlord offered us a field to camp in when my master bought him a beer. All was well.
Unfortunately none of us slept well as the mistress had severe tummy ache which she felt compelled to share with us. It is hard not to share everything when you are crammed into a six foot by four foot tent. At 6.30am he made her suffer more by watching him consume a gargantuan cooked breakfast.
We were following ‘The West Country Way’ a cycling route that stretches from Bristol to Padstow in Cornwall. My humans had already cycled the Tiverton to Bristol portion – without involving me, thankfully. Now we were attacking the part that reared up over Exmoor, plunged down to Barnstaple, capered along to Bude on the coast and finally chugged up over Bodmin Moor before we would leave it near Bodmin, where my mistress had worked out an alternative route that she was a little cagey about.
The following evening it was unanimously decided that we would book ourselves into a pub for the night. She was now snivelling with a cold, all their clothes seemed to be filthy and my master just could not bear the grizzling. An Indian takeaway and a cooked breakfast seemed to calm the ravened beast and we set off along the easy Tarka Trail.
This is a disused railway that provides thirty-five miles of traffic-free cycling. We wended through woodland, meandered next to streams, passing through bucolic landscapes that seemed untouched by time. With bonhomie we greeted fellow cyclists, walkers and the ubiquitous Labradors (why are there so many of these? If you want a tea towel carried round with you they are fine – but they don’t seem to fulfil any other function.)
Another hill reared its ugly head causing my mistress to stagger into Sheepwash pushing her bike. My master of course, being of the male persuasion, would no more get off his bike and push than I would consent to wearing a pink collar with faux diamonds on. After a hasty picnic, more steep hills followed until we espied a place next to the river at Brigerule where we set up our tent and repaired to the local hostelry for beverages, until the mistress felt sufficiently rested enough to crack on with cooking our dinner.
We were averaging over thirty miles a day, despite the streaming cold that she was afflicted with. I don’t think the poor dear knew where she was half the time. I must admit the pace was telling on me, so I was glad to stop early next day, after straining up onto Bodmin Moor. A mere eighteen mile cycle had us tucked behind a wall in a small glade near Crowdy Reservoir.
A short hop next day saw us slow down on the long gravelled slog into Bodmin. We stocked up on essentials such as dog meal, meat and whisky, before once again encountering huge climbs out of town.
At Lanivet she informed us we were now following the ‘Saint’s Way’, which is a thirty mile coast to coast route across Cornwall, from Padstow to Fowey. Many parts of this walking trail follow ancient drover’s paths and have been trodden by pilgrims, traders and suchlike since the Bronze Age. It seemed she had a cunning plan.
For many years she had dreamt and read about the famous pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Like thousands of others she yearned to follow in the footsteps of the flea-bitten medieval itinerants who had flocked to this most unlikely resting place of St. James. But as her hard-hearted husband had refused to push her in a wheelchair all the way, or even countenance travelling it by electric disabled buggy, never mind his flat refusal of mule conveyance, she had let it fester at the back of her mind – until now. This half of the Saint’s Way would be a test. If we could travel along it successfully, visiting the sacred places that it linked together, we would all be seized with the urge to go a’ pilgrimage. Like the three musketeers, we would proceed ‘all for one, and one for all’. Well, that was her plan.
We passed the stone wheel-headed Reperry Cross, lodged in a hedge, then a more complete one at St. Ingunger, before we arrived at Helman Tor. My master and I gambolled to the top to take in the stunning views of the Atlantic coast to the north and the English Channel to the south, the cream of Cornwall’s beauty sandwiched between. She breathlessly asked us if we had seen the 6,000 year old Neolithic enclosure up there. Her husband replied ‘Mmm, saw some rubble.’
A granite-hedged ridgeway now led us along a most ancient section to Lanlivery. For the first quarter of a mile it was fine, then brambles and nettles closed ranks, ensuring that even a hiker would find it tough-going. A generous gloopy mud lined the base and granite boulders hid behind the copious greenery. The width of my trailer and its ability to wind great lengths of foliage around its large wheels became a hot topic of discussion between my owners; as did the question of judgement in trying to cycle a walking path, and the likelihood of them still being married for their eighteenth anniversary. By the time we emerged onto a rutted track way they were no longer speaking to each other. Luckily, as well as a 15th century church, Lanlivery has the redoubtable Crown Inn, part of which is a medieval longhouse with original well, it also stocks a bewildering array of alcoholic beverages which went a long way towards restoring marital harmony. With her second enormous glass of wine in hand my mistress insisted that we all teeter down a path to the beautiful moss-covered Holy Well of St. Bryvyth’s. The tranquillity of this sacred spot, and the application of its miraculous waters to the fevered brows of my owners, indeed brought peace and harmony to our little pack.
We stayed at a campsite with hot showers, washing machines and best of all, acres of lush grass to roll on. We were all best mates again next morning and set off with the bikes and my trailer festooned in damp clothing. Our jolly voices rent the air as we crossed a main road and discovered the quaint bridleway we sought. A farmer, taciturn but helpful, assured us that the route was possible; he watched as we traversed his yard – seemingly a foot thick in liquid cow manure. She took the lead, smiling bravely, and forged through the muck dropping several pairs of pairs of knickers and a bright red bra from her bike, then the map slipped out of her bar bag into the mire and she looked a little more rattled. The farmer smiled broadly as my master retrieved the undergarments smeared with slime, we all exited the gate onto a grassy track. They spent a few minutes trying to scrape off the stinking sludge with twigs, turning to find that the steep bridleway had been carved away by a flash flood. The cratered fissure was left boiled with frothing water and was deep enough to consume half a bicycle. It stretched, like an elongated fractal, out of sight down the steep hill. They had to pair up to manhandle the bikes and trailer down, their conversation was strangely muted. I was encouraged to join them in the river at the bottom to wash off the accumulated detritus, but I could still detect a foul miasma about us all.
A few more acclivities and declivities saw me retire to my trailer. I still acted that it was an affront to my dog dignity, but really I was quite pleased to rest my weary legs and peer at my mistress as she laboured along behind. She really is quite fascinating to watch.
In Fowey, a busy honeypot of a town, I watched them both as they tucked into a veritable feast of battered fish, squid and salty chips. My Paddingtonesque stare worked – they bought me a whole sausage of my own, it went down well with all the hard little chips bits that they left for me.
Situated on the River Fowey, protected from the sea by Polruan and St. Katherine’s Castle, Fowey is still a major port. Rows of pastel-coloured houses range in tiers up the steep hillside. It is immensely pretty, has hundreds of small artisanal shops and attracts crowds of what we in the Westcountry call ‘Grockles’. Daphne du Maurier, the great thriller writer lived and wrote nearby, she adored this part of Cornwall and set many of her novels here. Kenneth Grahame of ‘Wind in the Willows’ fame was a keen visitor, befriending another local author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.
We were on a mission; we now had to make our way along the coast to Plymouth, where we hoped they would allow our cycling contrivance on the train. My mistress had apparently worked out a route – ‘Oh goody.’
Firstly we had to get across the river to Polruan on the other side. The ferry folk were friendly, quite jolly in fact. They expressed their surprise at our mode of transport by laughing heartily and calling sundry locals to come and have a look. Hearing that we were heading along the coast, they suggested a boat trip to Polperro, further east, that would save us several miles of hilly cycling. Unfortunately the boat trip was too full to accommodate our entourage, so messages were sent and a fisherman in a small trawler was summoned to take us instead.
A kind man, he was happy to take us as long as we didn’t mind stopping to fish for a bit. My humans enjoyed the journey watching yachts and dinghies skip over the waves as we passed Lantic Bay and admiring the turquoise waters and white beaches that punctuated the rocky shoreline. We stopped to fish before some towering black cliffs, listening to the beat of the waves as they rushed the rocks with billowing white spray. I curled myself into a ball and tucked my nose under my tail.
I am not a sea-dog. I am not even a water-dog. I like to paddle in shallow water – occasionally, but I dislike swimming, boating or any water sport. It seems at once pointless and perhaps dangerous. My owners however are quite keen. My first voyage was in a rowing boat on the Great Western Canal, we only just survived. Since then they have inherited a sailing boat and bought several kayaks, luckily they rarely have the time and energy to use them.
At Polperro, which looked very picturesque – if you like whitewashed cottages elevated in dizzy rows heading for heaven, the kind fisherman insisted on helping us dismount. The poor man. As my master, incredibly strong through years of outdoor graft, hefted his bike and strode up the steep harbour steps, the fisherman tried to follow suit with the mistress’ bike. It was lucky that she had positioned herself close enough to avert the disastrous fall he would have had, as he misjudged the weight of her tightly-packed steed and nearly toppled backwards into the drink.
We left Polperro by ascending Talland Hill. This has now gone down in family history as a heroic occurrence, undertaken as it was with neither crampons nor spare oxygen. We found it incredible that such a behemoth was named so tamely. Surely this colossal prominence should be accorded more respect by the mountaineering fraternity, even if the locals seem inured to its superior eminence. This was a hill that even my master scorned to cycle. They pushed and they heaved, the sweat ran from them in rivulets back down the hill. Gnarled old ladies sat tethered to their gleaming white cottages, whilst small children rolled like marbles down the slope. My owners were now reduced to twenty paces between lengthy stops; they grabbed hold of walls or railings to save them slipping into the abyss below. Inch by painful inch they crawled to what seemed the summit, only to have their hopes cruelly dashed as they rounded a corner to see yet more acclivity ahead. Even with my sucker-like paws it was a harsh climb and I took to curling up on any level doorstep I could find whilst I waited for the humans to drag their exhausted way aloft. Many hours later we attained the true summit, where, despite the debility of our crew, there was nowhere to camp so we plunged down into the next valley and set up our tent on a rough headland. Nearby was a small café that furnished my fatigued pair with enormous gin and tonics and gave me my own bowl of local water.
After availing themselves of the public toilets next morning, in order to re-wash the fetid, slurry-covered undergarments of yesterday, (was it really only yesterday?) there followed a hellish morning that involved another of those Westcountry hills that have no business being anywhere outside a mountain range. Elevenses in the bustling town of Looe soon restored our spirits. Spirits which were soon dashed once more as we toiled up yet another incline of monstrous proportions. The views however, were stunning. Strings of cottages petered out around the headland, below which fingers of seaweed-clad rocks dived beneath the waves. Set in the sun-lightened sea, an enigmatic, wooded island drew our eyes.
Looe Island, now a 22 acre nature reserve, has been known as St. George’s and as St. Michael’s Island in times past. It is said to be the place that Joseph of Arimathea landed with the child Jesus, and was mentioned by Diodorus Siculus as a centre of the tin trade in the pre-Roman era. In medieval times it had a Benedictine chapel built upon it, which was excavated by the popular ‘Time Team’ crew, who also found evidence of an early Romano-British chapel pre-dating the reign of Constantine. It once belonged to Glastonbury Abbey. A haunt of pirates and smugglers, it was purchased by the Atkin sisters in the 1960s. They lived there for the next forty years, preserving the islands flora and fauna, leaving it to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust after their deaths.
Our seascape prospect and dreams of island life became hemmed in by a modern estate at the top of the hill. It had flights of concrete steps leading downwards. My master glared at my mistress. Wordlessly, she gamely bumped her cycle down the treads whilst leaning backwards to counterbalance the weight of it. He disconnected the trailer from his bike and carried each burden down, flight after steep flight. Not a word passed between them.
My trailer was designed for the carriage of children and as such, it can convert into a, rather wide, pushchair. The bar at the rear can be compressed to another in order to act as a brake. My mute mistress engaged the said brake on the abrupt slope below the steps. This enabled my poor master to lower the (now) entire contraption to the valley base. A quick glimpse of the sea, attached to a sandy beach was attended by the equally abrupt upturn of the pathway. As they trudged upward, the path turned into a muddy track beneath a hollow of gnarled trees. She had overtaken him by now and kept turning to peer at his purple face. Later, she confided that she actually believed he was having heart problems. His pace was slow and laboured, his breathing sounded strained and sweat dripped from his brow. She abandoned her bike up ahead and scurried back down to help him by pushing the rear of the trailer. And that was the moment when she found that the brake was still engaged. She had forgotten to take it off, and so her unfortunate husband had been struggling valiantly to literally drag the cumbersome burden up the mount. I cannot repeat the torrent of abusive invective that spurted forth from his mouth. Suffice to say that he believed he had ample grounds for instant divorce, but was keeping the option of uxoricide firmly open. (This is the word for killing your wife in case you needed clarification!)
The tunnel of trees tightened and the path followed suit. Soon it became a winding trail of only a boot’s width. The trailer had to be disconnected once again and both humans had to manhandle each bike and the trailer along the sections of path. It was steep, slippery, narrow, and once the trees peeled back, extremely hot. It took them aeons to get each encumbrance to the end, where, thankfully, a metalled road lay. Several hikers came past and innocently inquired why they were trying to cycle the Coast path, did they not realise it was a walking trail? ‘I didn’t’ spat my master through gritted teeth, as he rubbed his many nettle rashes with dock leaves.
The Inn on the Shore at Downderry, with its superlative maritime vista, succeeded in downgrading the marital tension from deep-frozen to merely frost-bitten. The tasty seafood sandwiches and strong ale were a pertinent factor in this.
We then cut across the Rame Head peninsula through Antony, stopping for another ‘conjugality-improving’ pint, before bowling onto the free ferry across to Plymouth. There followed a rather harassing ride through the fume-laden, frantic streets of the city to the train station. Tickets were purchased for our rather unusual ensemble by my male human whilst the rest of us hid well out of sight. Tentative inquiries of our legality to travel as we boarded, were brushed off by my master with a blood-curdling glare. No-one and nothing was going to stop him returning home that instant. Enough was enough!